I’m writing this Culture Fit column on July 3, on a plane to Vegas, on my way to play for the first time in the Main Event of the World Series of Poker. I may update with a post-script, but how I finish the tournament is not particularly relevant to the Culture Fit topic it inspires me to write about right now. It is this: Control.
Many of us who went to law school, including yours truly, are control freaks … whether we admit to it or not, we want control of our careers, our future, our lives. There is a lot about the business life I have created for myself that satisfies this craving. I can control my environment for the most part, make choices about how to best use my time, and no one can fire me.
And yet, I continually put myself into positions where the quest for control is consciously made in the face of the uncontrollable. At the poker table, a skilled player is always trying to control the action, control betting patterns, and ultimately control the behaviors of his or her opponents. Indeed, one can have a certain kind of control at a poker table. I can choose to fold, call or raise on any given hand. I have choice and control of my behavior. But, of course, I cannot control the outcome. Even the best players will lose frequently due to multiple factors outside of their control. The best one can do in poker is work toward obtaining a strategic or statistical edge.
Our careers flow this way too. I may lose a client for reasons other than poor service. And I can’t control the final decisions of our candidates, as much as I try to identify “yes” candidates versus tire kickers in advance. The uncertainty of outcomes is stressful, and yet I am drawn to the excitement of that uncertainty. Celebrating the predictable is never quite as much fun, at least for me, as celebrating an outcome that is not guaranteed.
How does this translate to success or a best practices tip for an in-house lawyer? Is this column a self-indulgent exercise? The second question first: maybe, I’m simply in an excited and reflective mood, and convinced myself that I could turn that into an interesting column!
But yes, also, there is a takeaway for in-house counsel. I have spent enough time with you to conclude that in-house counsel are constantly on quests for control. Control of your career, your internal clients, your matters and cases, and workload. And you are on your control quests in the face of the most uncontrollable setting imaginable: the corporate beast.
You operate in an environment where seemingly certain job security can turn into a change of control situation (company sale, RIF, strategic shift, bankruptcy, etc.). You may be in the good graces of executive leaders one day, and then in an oil and water relationship with a new boss the next. I understand that control freaks struggle with change. I know I do. The only solution: Resilience.
I can offer no comfort or advice when a bad outcome hits your career or your life, other than Be Resilient. When I get knocked out of a poker tournament, whether via bad play or bad luck, I get pissed. I don’t throw a tantrum. But I isolate myself for an hour or so, take a walk, and allow myself to feel unhappy or angry or frustrated. I let the feeling in. And then I let it go. I do the same thing if a deal falls through or one of our corporate clients gets sold and I know orders from that company will likely come to an end.
Then I restart the quest for control. I go after another deal, or I enter another tournament. Resiliency is the only weapon a control freak can deploy when faced with adversity. And when you do achieve success (say a promotion to General Counsel, for example), it will be sweetest and most rewarding when you achieve it after a quest in which you faced obstacles, set-backs and uncontrollable events.
Post script written on July 17:
I busted on Day Two of my first Main Event. I was humbled by the skill level of the competition. The next day, I entered a $250 side event, a very small entry fee by World Series standards, with 574 players. I made the final table, finished 7th, and won enough to cover about half of my Main Event entry fee. I came home knowing I will go back and try the larger events again next year.